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September 13, 2017

The impact of iPhones on the rugged handheld market

Apple has been selling well over 200 million iPhones annually for the past several years. This affects the rugged handheld market both directly and indirectly. On the positive side, the iPhone brought universal acceptance of smartphones. That accelerated acceptance of handheld computing platforms in numerous industries and opened new applications and markets to makers of rugged handhelds. On the not so positive side, many of those sales opportunities didn't go to providers of rugged handhelds. Instead, they were filled by standard iPhones. There are many examples where aging rugged handhelds were replaced by iPhones, sometimes by the tens of thousands. That happened despite the relatively high cost of iPhones and despite their inherent fragility.

By now it's probably fair to say that the rugged handheld industry has only peripherally benefitted from the vast opportunity created by the iPhone's paving the way for handheld computers. Why did this happen? Why did it happen despite the fact that iPhones usually don't survive a single drop to the ground without damage, despite that fact that only recently have iPhones become spill-resistant, despite the fact that iPhones need a bulky case to survive on the job, and despite the fact that their very design -- fragile, slender, gleaming -- is singularly unsuited for work on the shop floor and in the field?

One reason, of course, is that Apple is Apple. iPhones are very high quality devices with state-of-the-art technology. Apple has universal reach, excellent marketing and packaging, and massive software developer support. And despite their price, iPhones are generally less expensive than most vertical market rugged handhelds. Another reason is that creating a rugged handheld that comes even close to the capabilities of a modern consumer smartphone is almost impossible. Compared to even the larger rugged handheld manufacturers, Apple is simply operating on another level. The combined annual sales of all makers of rugged handhelds, tablets and laptops combined is only about what Apple alone sells in just over a week.

All that said, what can the rugged handheld market learn from Apple? Actually quite a bit.

Take cameras for example. The iPhone has almost singlehandedly obliterated the market for consumer cameras. People take pictures with their iPhones today, not with dedicated cameras. That's not only because it's convenient, it's also because iPhone cameras are quite excellent. They are state-of-the-art and have massive software support. Sending pictures from an iPhone to another phone, a computer, social media or anywhere else is easy. iPhone pictures and videos can easily be viewed on a big screen TV via AirPlay.

How important are cameras in smartphones? Important enough that the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus became hugely successful despite only modest overall improvements over the prior iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. The iPhone 7 Plus came with two cameras that seamlessly worked together, there was an amazingly successful "portrait" mode, and overall picture taking with an iPhone 7 Plus became so good that here at we switched all product photography and video from conventional dedicated cameras to the iPhone 7 Plus.

The same is again happening with the new iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. Relatively minor improvements overall, but another big step forward with the cameras. Both of the iPhone 8 Plus cameras have optical image stabilization, less noise, augmented reality features thanks to innovative use of sensors, stunning portrait lighting that can be used in many ways, and also 4k video at 60 frames per second, on top of full HD 1920x1080 video in 240 frame per second slow motion. And the new iPhone X ups the ante even more with face ID that adds IR camera capabilities and sophisticated 3D processing.

Is this all just for fun and play? Oh no, it goes way beyond that. Imaging has become essential in today's world, both on the personal and the business and enterprise level, and beyond. People document and record just about anything with their smartphones today, and that's made possible both by superior quality of those smartphone cameras as well as by the sheer convenience of it. People take pictures of anything and everything today. Good, useful, high quality pictures and video.

Can that be done with rugged handhelds as well? After all, the ability to quickly and easily document things on the job is becoming massively important. Sadly, the answer is no. Yes, compared to the truly dreadful cameras that used to be built into rugged mobile computing gear, the situation has improved substantially. But overall, even the best cameras in rugged gear lag way behind almost any modern smartphone. And the average cameras in rugged gear are way, way, way behind anything on a phone.

Just how critical is the situation? Very. A shocking number of mobile Windows devices simply use Microsoft's basic camera app that has virtually no features at all and is very rarely matched to the camera hardware. That means you get blurry low-res pictures from camera hardware that seem, according to their specs, capable of significantly more. More often than not, there are barely any settings at all, no white balance, no manual adjustments, no smart focussing, image aspect ratios do not match display aspect rations, there's huge shutter lag in stills and deadly slow frame rates in video. As a result, even the best integrated documentation cameras are barely good enough to generate passable imagery even after training. That is a very regrettable oversight and it's really a shame.

Then there's the hardware. Here again the iPhone, and most consumer phones, are lightyears ahead of just about anything available in vertical markets. No one expects low-volume vertical market gear to match the likes of Apple and Samsung in advanced miniaturized technology, but the gap really should be much closer than it is. Especially given that even consumer electronics leaders don't push the envelope when it's not really needed. For example, the last three generations of iPhones have all used the same 12mp imager size, but still been able to push camera capabilities forward with every generation. Display resolutions, likewise, haven't changed from iPhone 6 to 7 and now 8. But that's because even the iPhone 6 Plus of three years ago already had a full HD 1920 x 1080 5.5 inch screen. Rugged handhelds, on the other hand, generally offer much lower resolution.

There's no need for specialized vertical market technology to always be at the consumer technology state-of-the-art. But it must not be so far behind as to impact the usefulness of the products.

With the new iPhone X, Apple again pushes the envelope. The new phone uses an OLED screen instead of a standard LCD. OLED (organic light-emitting diod) screens don't need backlights because the individual pixels emit light. That makes for deeper blacks and more vibrant color. The screen measures 5.8 inches diagonally, but since it covers the entire front of the device, the footprint of the iPhone X is much smaller than that of the iPhone 8 Plus with its 5.5-inch screen. Resolution is 2436 x 1175 pixels, which makes for a razor-sharp 458 pixels per inch.

The iPhone X is expensive ($999 for a 64GB version and $1,149 for a 256GB model) and will likely be a standard bearer rather than Apple's volume leader for some time to come. But its advanced technology will impact expectation and make lesser technology look old. And that can make or break sales. So by introducing their latest iPhones, Apple not only enforced the already high expectations customers have of a modern handheld with the refined iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, but boosted expectations with the iPhone X whose technologies will soon be considered the norm.

What does all that mean to the rugged handheld market? Most likely that things will get tougher yet. Is there still merit in building handhelds rugged from the inside out? Definitely. But waterproof consumer smartphones and the availability of some really good protective cases have raised the ruggedness ante. Is being good enough technologywise still, well, good enough? Maybe, but probably not. Consumers are smart and their expectations increasingly dictate what makes the cut and what doesn't, even at work.

And that is the impact of the new iPhones on rugged handhelds. Everything looks a bit older yet, and expectations have been raised yet again.

So what are my recommendations to the rugged handheld industry?

The good news is that the iPhone is still your friend. It continues to open markets and applications to handheld computers where none were ever considered before. And some of those new markets and applications may go to rugged gear. So the opportunity is still there, and it's perhaps greater than ever.

To realize that opportunity, however, some things need to happen. The rugged handheld industry must:

-- Adopt contemporary technology. It doesn't have to be state-of-the-art, but its must be close enough so as not be viewed as simply old.

-- Increase display resolution. One cannot claim to have professional tools when the professionals who use those tools expect, and need, more.

-- Pay attention to performance. A lot of the generic chips we see in use today are barely up to the job.

-- Do not disregard consumer tastes. If certain form factors, materials and sizes are appealing, use them.

-- Remember that there's one reason why customers pay more for rugged gear: ruggedness. Make sure it truly is. Have all external ruggedness testing done and available. Excel in this. If a consumer phone offers IP67, IP65 is no longer good enough.

-- Make ruggedness testing count. Explain what it means and how it benefits customers. No more generic "MIL-STD-810G compliant" claims without specifics.

-- Don't phone it in. Great cameras are part of the success of consumer phones. Make them great in rugged handhelds, too. I consider that crucial.

-- Hang on to, and improve, traditional rugged gear strengths. Outdoor viewability is one. Rain and glove capability is another. Scratch resistance, industrial-grade scanners, strong backlights, etc., are others. Make all that even better.

-- Clean up the software. An Android or Windows home screen with games, social media and entertainment doesn't impress enterprise customers. Stress functionality and security instead.

-- Drop the hype: If there are are extra business or enterprise features, explain them clearly and outline their real world benefits and advantages.

So yes, the new iPhones have once again raised the bar, and thus made it that much more difficult for rugged handheld computers to measure up in many customers' eyes. But I am convinced that, if executed properly, there remains great opportunity for the rugged handheld industry. -- Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, September 2017

Posted by conradb212 at September 13, 2017 08:44 PM